Update: the Steam Machines are officially in the wild. Valve has sent out prototypes to 300 lucky beta testers, and third-party manufacturers have begun showing early versions of their own Steam Boxes. We’ve updated this article to reflect to the current state of Steam Box affairs.
Once there was a world where PC gaming was at the desk, console gaming was in the living room and never the two shall meet. That’s all coming to a close now, as Valve prepares to bring Steam to your HDTV thanks to the Steam Box.
If you’re unfamiliar with Steam, think of it as iTunes for video games, with a buddy list and chat for joining your friend’s games. It started off on Windows PCs, but now has a healthy number of titles for Mac, too.
Valve’s rumored Steam Box is a bit more ethereal. It’s still unclear whether Valve, the Washington-based gaming mogul behind game series like Half-Life and Portal, will be designing the hardware, or simply create the means via software and let third-parties do the assembling and hawking of physical tech.
A point of clarification: Valve seems to prefer the term Steam Machine, while manufacturers keep calling their products Steam Boxes. We’ll be using the two terms interchangeably in this article until we learn of a distinction between the two.
Theories now lean toward the latter as Valve has unveiled plans for the SteamOS. As the name suggests, SteamOS will be a sort of operating system for running Steam, and it will be based on Linux. This is all detailed on Valve’s official SteamOS page.
- Read more: SteamOS: what you need to know
Valve already took a big step into the living room with Steam’s Big Picture mode, but that still required putting a computer in your entertainment center, or running a really long HDMI cable, at the very least.
Perhaps because of that, a lot of the phrasing in Valve’s SteamOS reveal treats Steam and the upcoming OS interchangeably. Therefore it’s unclear which features will be integrated into Steam as we now know it, and which will be part of an upcoming release.
Still, Valve’s goals with Steam Box and SteamOS are clear. Give PC gaming the ease and accessibility that console jockeys already enjoy, and do so in a way that lets OEMs make the hardware and compete. And put Steam right at the center of it, ready to vacuum up the cash like it’s the Steam summer sale all year long.
Steam Machines at CES 2014
To the surprise of many, gaming stole the headlines at CES 2013. Now just a few weeks from CES 2014, it’s looking like the same thing will happen all over again, thanks to the Steam Box.
Or should we say Steam Boxes? Multiple manufacturers, including iBuyPower and Digital Storm, have given us glimpses of their designs, with the promise of more to come at the show in Vegas early next year.
Both manufacturers are well known in the gaming enthusiast space, and we’d be shocked if more companies that specialize in gaming didn’t reveal designs over their own. Valve’s idea behind making the SteamOS free and open source is to encourage multiple builds to let customers choose the machine that’s right for them. Expect serious competition as hardware manufacturers fight to convince the consumer where to spend their Steam Box dollar.
Valve’s Steam Box prototype
While Valve seems sets on producing the SteamOS and leaving it to third-party OEMs (original equipment manufacturer) to build the Steam Machines, that hasn’t stopped it from producing and distributing its own prototypes.
300 lucky Steam users have been selected as beta testers. They each received a nondescript wooden case housing the new gaming gear, and one of them was kind enough to produce an unboxing video that’s garnered hundreds of thousands of views.
YouTube : http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jXCbdn00pKY
Units are shipping with a variety of specifications, ranging from i7 to i3 builds, a variety of Nvidia Geforce graphics cards. This is inline with past comments by Valve CEO Gabe Newell, who has said Steam Machines will builds will go from "good, better, best," with some machines capable of playing games locally, while others will rely on streaming.
Steam Box prototypes will ship this year. 300 people will get one.
Valve has come out and said it. "This year we’re shipping just 300 of these boxes to Steam users, free of charge, for testing." There are instructions to opt into a beta Valve’s Steam Machine page. They’re rather simple, and seem designed to confirm that you’re active Steam user.
Valve has reiterated that while it is making these intial prototypes, multiple manufacturers will be making Steam Boxes of disparate configurations, saying that this will give users a choice, and not force them into a one size must fit all situation.
We still don’t know if Valve will produce its own Steam Box for sale, but signs point to no, right now anyway.
How open will this Steam Box beta be?
Very open, it would seem from the FAQ on Valve’s site. Questions like can I install another OS, post pictures of the thing online or change the hardware are all answered with a resounding yes.
It also goes on to say that users will be able to build their own Steam Boxes, and Valve will providing access to the SteamOS source code.
Wait, how will a Linux-based Steam Box play my Windows games?
Through streaming, at least that’s how Valve describes it. There aren’t a lot of specifics here, but we’ve seen gaming products side step OS restrictions using WiFi streaming before. The Nvidia Shield does just that, allowing you to stream a Windows game from your PC to an Android device.
We’re assuming that the Steam Box and SteamOS will work similarly. On Valve’s SteamOS site it says, "Just turn on your existing computer and run Steam as you always have."
Of course, having the Steam Box be dependent on the PC we assume you own is not without its faults. First off, it’s tying up that machine, so no one else can use it. Second, you’re still caught in the expensive upgrade cycle of PC gaming. Of course, this may not be the only Steam Box in town. Some could be capable of running a games all on its own.
So there will be Steam Boxes, plural?
Yes. Valve’s open SteamOS will be available to whoever will have it, and they can create whatever sort of machine they like to run. At least Valve hasn’t publicized any planned restrictions.
It won’t be like the PlayStation 4 and the Xbox One, where you have the Sony system and the Microsoft system with their own libraries. Multiple configurations mean competition, which will hopefully drive innovation and keep things affordable.
It will also means a lot of different models all claiming to be the best Steam Box for your money, so picking one won’t be as simple as deciding if you like Uncharted better than Halo.
Hopefully you’ll check back with us for some Steam Box reviews when deciding on which model to go for. Wink, wink, nudge, nudge.
The Steam Box controller
Try as you might with wireless peripherals, the mouse and keyboard just aren’t suited to couch gaming. Valve has recognized this, and thus unveiled a controller for use with any and all games on Steam.
YouTube : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jyaZHFyoLlg
That’s right. First-person shooters, simulation games, even precise point-and-click tactical titles will be controllable with this gamepad, according to Valve. They even claim to have, "fooled those older games into thinking they’re being played with a keyboard and mouse."
Touchpads instead of thumbsticks
The general shape of the Steam controller is familiar. Based on the renders on Valve’s controller site, it looks a bit bulbous, like an Xbox 360 or (shudder) an Ouya controller.
There are some major differences though. First of all, it has dual circular touchpads rather than thumbsticks. You’ll pilot them with your thumbs and they’re even clickable, but Valve says they’re more precise than physical movable sticks.
The trackpads will also give haptic feedback. These are the touch vibrations you know from phones like the Galaxy S4. According to Valve, this isn’t just for rumble feedback, but it will actually help make controls more precise. How exactly that will work is unclear, but anyone who played StarCraft on the Nintendo 64 knows that controllers need all the help they can get with certain genres.
Dead center on the gamepad you’ll also have a touchscreen, which seems more advanced than the touchpad on the PS4 or Ouya controller. There’s a ton of potential here, giving game designers a space to place a map, inventory screen or even shifting contextual controls.
But do I have to use this thing?!
Nope, not at all. Valve’s site says that you’ll be able to use the regular old mouse and keyboard on Steam and the Steam Box, should you want to.
Of course, it conceivable that someone could make a game just for the Valve controller, but it doesn’t look like there are plans to lock out any traditional input devices.
But what will be in the(se) Steam Box(es)?
It’s hard to say. Because Valve plans to be open with the SteamOS, companies can slap together any sort of compatible configuration they like and put it to market. It could be a lot like Android, where you have devices of varying sizes, internal power and price. Some people theorize that Valve will produce a Nexus-style Steam Box of its own.
We expect to see two, maybe three types of Steam Box. First, a high-end beefy machine capable of running games locally. The second would be a less expensive configuration that relies entirely on streaming for gaming. A third would be somewhere in the middle.
Valve has confirmed that, at least for the beta, installing your own OS will be totally copacetic.
Music and movies on the Steam Box
Watching football and Netflix are a part of the console experience, and not something that Valve will be leaving out of its Steam Box. On the SteamOS site it says, "We’re working with many of the media services you know an love. Soon we will begin bringing them online, allowing you to access your favorite music and video with Steam and SteamOS."
Valve doesn’t name any names, but we expect the usual suspects to assemble. Netflix, Amazon, Hulu, basically anything you can get at right now on your Xbox 360 right now is almost guaranteed. NFL Sunday Ticket and cable apps like Xfinity seem like a remote possibility, as cable companies and traditional media conglomerates tend to move slowly and cautiously. iTunes is right out, since it never shows up on a device without an Apple logo.
The Steam Box will have family sharing and account controls
Placing a machine in the living room means everyone in the house is welcome to it. This isn’t a personal device like a cell phone or even a tablet; this is something everyone can log into. Of course, the Steam Box is guaranteed to be more nuanced than grandpa’s VCR.
Valve has made that clear on its site, saying, " Soon, families will have more control over what titles get seen by whom, and more features to allow everyone in the house to get the most out of their Steam libraries."
It seems plans are in place for multiple users on a Steam Box. Whether or not those will all be linked to one Steam account is now the question that arises. Having it all on once account might be best, since that way everyone can share all the games the family has purchased, and mom and dad can keep little Johnny from playing GTA V by altering permissions, while still having it on tap for themselves.
Of course, moving games between multiple Steam accounts might not even be a big deal. Valve’s SteamOS site details plans for a family sharing plan. Valve says, "Family Sharing allows you to take turns playing one another’s games while earning your own Steam achievements and saving your individual game progress to the Steam cloud."
It’s not terribly dissimilar to what Microsoft had planned for the Xbox One. Don’t worry Xbox fans, that feature may actually make a comeback.
But when is the Steam Box release date, and the SteamOS release date for that matter?
2014. That’s how Valve responds to the question "When can I buy one?!" in its own FAQ.
Valve goes on to say, "Beginning in 2014, there will be multiple SteamOS machines to choose from, made by different manufacturers." Exciting stuff, no?
That’s the closest to a release date we can give. It’ll be really interesting to how and when Valve does get the Steam Box and the SteamOS out there, as the new console generation will be in full swing by then. Cue the Michael Jackson eating popcorn gif, cause we can’t wait to watch.
The Steam Box is coming. Half-Life 3 confirmed?
Allow us to get theoretical for a moment. It seems like Gabe Newell and the Valve crew can’t step out for a cup of coffee without someone looking for an oblique hint that Half-Life 3, or episode 3 of Half-Life 2, is on the way.
The theory floating around now is that Valve could use the next chapter of Half Life to launch the Steam Box and the Steam OS. Valve did something similar back in 2004 when it required a Steam login before users could play Half-Life 2.
Using the Steam box or SteamOS as a gatekeeper to Half-Life 3 seems unlikely, since Valve seems intent on keeping Steam as we know it intact for PCs. However, the timeline makes a lot of sense, since the Source engine os due for an update, and it has been six freaking years since the last episode of Half-Life.